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John Lamb, Published June 06 2010

The Beatles and Plains Art Museum come together to illustrate 'The White Album'

"Everybody knows the Beatles,” says Colleen Sheehy, director and CEO of the Plains Art Museum. “The Beatles cross several generations.”

The proof is not only on the walls at the Fargo museum but also in who picked what went on the walls.

Sheehy and a team of area college students curated “The White Album: The Beatles Meet the Plains,” which pairs the famed double album’s songs with corresponding selections from the museum’s permanent collection.

“As long as I can remember, I was raised in a Beatles household,” says Chris Gion, a BFA printmaking student at North Dakota State University who helped with the show. He adds that his mother was one of those who screamed when the group appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964.

Sheehy knows firsthand the power of the Fab Four and their music.

As a 10-year-old, she caught the group’s 1965 show at the Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis.

“That’s why I’m such a crazy music person,” she explains. “I was imprinted.”

That concert couldn’t have come at a better time for Sheehy. It was that year her father died, leaving her mother to raise eight children.

“The Beatles really did save my life,” Sheehy says, referencing bouts of teenage depression and other trying times.

“It was such positive, happy music. I lived for the next Beatles album to come out,” she says. “That’s why I do believe art saves lives, just as much as medicine, shelter, food.”

By pairing art with music, Sheehy and her collaborators are breathing new life into many pieces of the Plains’ permanent collection the public hasn’t seen in some time.

To get the full multimedia experience, visitors of the Beatles exhibit can check out an iPod from the museum and listen to the 30 songs on “The White Album” while viewing the corresponding works, just as the organizers did in the vault while assembling the show.

The show opens with a bang – both audibly and visually. Paired with the album opener, the rocking “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” is Luis Jimenez’s big, bold and bawdy fiberglass statue, “Barfly (Statue of Liberty)” It depicts a blonde in a red top and blue shorts leaning black on her barstool, hoisting a foamy beer – kind of a honky-tonk Statue of Liberty.

“It really does highlight the similarities between music and visual art,” says co-curator Kaylyn Gerenz, a BFA sculpture student at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

At more than 8 feet tall, the sculpture is a commanding opening statement for the show, just as the track is for the album.

“We just thought it was so playful, with the Beatles talking about the Soviet Union but it being an American song,” Gerenz says.

Playful is also the best way to describe “Happy Birthday,” David Rathman’s colorful acrylic painting of a smiling face that is a natural for the Beatles’ giddy “Birthday.”

Less obvious is another piece set to “Birthday,” Star Wallowing Bull’s colored-pencil drawing “New Age Fancy Dancer II,” though it is still bright, colorful and exciting.

A couple of other songs feature multiple interpretations, like “Sexy Sadie,” represented by Susan Geston’s black-and-white gender-bending 1978 photo “Two Men in Munich” and Richard Brewer’s untitled mixed-media depiction of a vibrant flower against a dark background.

Gion explains how John Lennon wrote “Sexy Sadie,” disillusioned by the predatory advances on women by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who tutored the Beatles.

Gion likes the duality in Geston’s piece, the sense of dominance over followers, a juxtaposition of glamorous and a darker side of a character.

On the other hand, Brewer’s piece plays to the sexy aspects in the song with its use of gold ornamentation and bright, bold colors.

Similarly, across the room are two takes on “Happiness is a Warm Gun” – David Yust’s lithograph “Alpha Inclusion” and Duane Mickelson’s sculpture of an armored bird, “Stealth Raptor.”

The smooth, cool, gray metal surface of “Raptor” can translate to the barrel of a gun, but the colorful splashes in the lower left of Yust’s print?

“It was a strong response to the music,” Gion says, explaining how the dark upper half apparently pooling in the lighter lower gives the piece an ominous feeling.

“There’s a dichotomy in the song,” Sheehy adds. “You don’t expect the last line to be ‘warm gun.’ You expect it to be … ‘puppy.’ ”

Other associations between a song and a piece’s mood are felt in the dreamy floating of Aurora Landin’s untitled aerial silkscreen prints on aluminum for “Julia” and the steady loping of Susan Fiene’s lithograph “Orizonte,” matching the rhythm of “I Will.”

Perhaps the pairing most worthy of exploration is the song that warrants extended exposure – the avant-garde “Revolution 9.”

For the infamously repetitive sound collage, the curators picked an odd assortment of items, ranging from old toys to animal imagery and suitcases with birds on top.

“It’s too complex to have one piece of art,” Gerenz says. “It’s a very disorienting song, so we wanted it to overwhelm you.”

Sheehy offers a more diplomatic explanation.

“The museum is always trying to get more pieces out so people can see what’s in the community,” she says.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533